Anita Lo had a stellar restaurant upbringing — she worked under David Bouley, Guy Savoy, Michel Rostang, and David Waltuck at Chanterelle before she took a turn running the burners at Mirezi. But in 2000, she was craving creative control, and so she and her then-partner Jennifer Scism decided to strike out on their own, and they scoured Tribeca and the West Village for spaces, eventually landing on Barrow Street. The pair erected Annisa (13 Barrow Street, 212-741-6699) “on a dime,” says Lo, and they opened the doors to an eatery built on the chef’s personal style of food.
The first years were strong, says the chef, but press started petering out in 2003 and 2004. “It was scary; I thought we were going to close,” Lo recalls. Instead, she landed on the first season of Iron Chef America, which transformed the West Village eatery into an international destination.
In the years that followed, Annisa grew into an iconic New York restaurant, and the dining room was consistently packed until July 4, 2009 when it caught fire — quite literally. The kitchen erupted into flames thanks to faulty wiring, destroying the cooking space and burning through the back wall of the front of the house. Thankfully, an upstairs neighbor got the fire department there quickly and saved the building, but becuase of the soot and water damage, the restaurant was totaled. And the rebuilding process came close to finishing the spot off for good. “My lease was running out, and there was no way I was going to rebuild if we didn’t sign a new lease,” Lo says. “I thought we lost it on three occasions. And the insurance took forever for us to get paid. It was just a fiasco.”
The doors reopened in 2010, though, and Lo says since then, the restaurant’s had its best years yet — and the chef has cemented her place among this city’s culinary gatekeepers.
In this interview, the chef considers her legacy and weighs in on what keeps her going, why the broader women chef issue is important to address, and why the health department’s grading system is a pressing issue for the industry.
Up next, Lo talks about why it’s important to talk about women in the industry.
In this city, owning a restaurant for ten years is a long time. How do you stay motivated?
Therapy [laughs]. I always say that cooking is a lifestyle choice of the obsessive-compulsive. It’s something I have to do. I love cooking. I love food. I have an enormous responsibility to my staff. And this past year, I got sent to Senegal. That was cool. I was a guest chef in Russia. That was cool.
Why did you choose the West Village?
I live four blocks from here. I think downtown people understand my cuisine better; they’re more adventurous.
How has the neighborhood changed?
Bleecker Street used to be all these cute little antique stores, and now it’s like a mall.
Has your clientele changed with the area?
I think we get people from all over. We’ve always had a very eclectic mix, which I’m very proud of. Our original Times review said you couldn’t put our clientele into a box — they’re from all walks of life and all ages, and I think that’s cool.
How has the industry changed over that time?
There are different fads. Back in that day, creativity was more important. Now I think that’s still important, but I also think sourcing is so huge. In New York, there are more of these corporate-style restaurant management companies, or there are more of them running restaurants than there used to be. Or maybe I’m just aware of them.
Do you think the industry is more or less conducive to opening a place like this today?
Less conducive. There’s this huge ubiquitous rustic farm-to-table movement that seems to be very much in demand. And there were a couple of great restaurants like this that didn’t make it. Like Anthos. That was personal cuisine, upscale but not horribly upscale, and beautiful. But it didn’t make it.
Are the elements of a successful restaurant different now? Is the media more important?
Oh god, yeah. I’m not complaining — Top Chef Masters did enormous things for me, and Iron Chef America saved my restaurant. But we didn’t have that back then. I was on the first season of Iron Chef America, and that was 2004 or 2003? Top Chef didn’t exist when I opened this restaurant. Food Network existed, but it was more traditional and less entertainment-driven.
Any big lessons learned?
You really have to take care of your body. I didn’t do that — I’m going to get a full knee-replacement in February, so I’m trying to get my young cooks to not overdo it.
What about a couple of particularly proud moments?
When we reopened in 2010, we had been closed for 9 months, and all of my staff members, at some point, were not being paid. And every single one came back except for one.
Have any staff members been with you since the beginning?
Yeah, and he was at the last restaurant as well. Marcello. He’s a prep cook. I’ve offered to pay for him to learn English, but he’s kind of an older guy. I tried to see if he wanted to move up into the kitchen, and he didn’t.
You’ve had a major impact on a lot of different New York chefs. What do you hope is your legacy?
I really hope that I’ve given women and gay people a role model. I was thinking about the gender issue when Time magazine came out with a list of culinary gods and there were no women on it. And the same week, the Times did an article on Cook it Raw [an international cooking collaboration] and over several years, only three women have been invited to do that. I think there’s so much change to be done. I think women aren’t pushed and don’t push themselves. And the other part is we’re not given opportunity to be included in these things.
How does this change? Is it media or women standing up?
I think the question is more important, and I don’t know if there is an answer — the question needs to be asked on every level.
Do you think there’s a barrier to entry, or is it something else? Is it harder for women?
For some reason, I know a lot of very well-received women chefs who haven’t been able to get funding to open a restaurant. Why? I don’t know. I’m sure we have a harder time asking. Women are raised to defer to their male counterparts in very subtle ways — I’m not saying this is the 1950s, but there’s a lot of backlash still. Even my wine list gets backlash [because it features all women producers]. I’ve had at least two men that have needled me saying, “Are men not good enough?” and silly stuff like that. I’ve had people say that it’s an anachronism. How is that an anachronism? Are we in a post-gender phase? I just don’t get that. That was written by a male journalist. I think that’s insane. It’s actually not an exclusive list, it’s just a way of supporting women and celebrating women in wine.
It’s also a problem to talk about ourselves as women chefs, because the whole point is to be equal. But if we don’t talk about it and ask these questions, we’re never going to be equal.
On the next page, Lo airs her grievances with the health department.
Favorite recent culinary trip:
I’ve had so many really good things happen recently. My Alaska trip was amazing. I’m a new member of the Alaska Seafood Council, and I’m an avid angler. I’m not that skilled, but I make up for it in enthusiasm. I was sent up to Alaska to go out onto this boat for five days, and we’d go fishing every day and set traps for shrimp. There’s an amazing fishery up there. The fish is so plentiful and so well-managed and the water is so clean. I was so impressed, and it was so much fun. There were fish everywhere. Salmon jumping everywhere. Whales all around you. And every time you drop a line, you pull something up — it was really incredible to see.
Favorite people to collaborate with:
I work a lot with my chef de cuisine Mary Attea. I’ve always been very alone in the menu here, but we’ve got a couple of Lebanese-inspired dishes on the menu right now, and Mary is half Lebanese. She comes at it with a fresh eye.
I don’t collaborate much with her, but I love April Bloomfield. She comes out and fishes with me, and we cook what we can, and it’s awesome. There’s nothing better than waking up and having April make breakfast with you. That’s such a privilege. I caught this enormous fluke a couple of years ago, and I made a little sashimi with it, and then April made fish and chips.
Bar for a casual drink:
For really casual, Barrow Street Ale House next door. You get beer and chicken wings.
Favorite bottle of wine recently?
Occhipinti. We did a dinner with Hank Shaw, and we paired with Occhipinti wines. They blew me out of the water.
Favorite special occasion spot?
The meals I’ve had at Eleven Madison Park were stellar.
Place to be when you have nowhere to be at all?
That makes me think of sushi and that sort of zen environment. I just had a great meal at Sushi Nakazawa. I would like to go back.
Best hood in the city for food?
I think it is Brooklyn. Generally Brooklyn, because I don’t know all the neighborhoods well enough.
Place that doesn’t get enough credit:
I think my friend Sue Torres doesn’t get enough credit. She’s got Suenos. She grinds her own corn to make masa to make tortillas, and she brings in the corn from Mexico and has a grinder from Mexico. You gotta go try Sue Torres’ tortillas. They’re so good. No one talks about that.
SHARE, a breast and ovarian cancer support group. It’s national, and it also does educational programs.
Pressing industry issue:
The health department is just ridiculous. It’s gotten out of control, and I think it’s a bureaucratic form of robbery, and it’s awful. There are so many ridiculous rules. You know how you have those little rolled up towels you use to wipe the plate? I got fined for that. Give me a fucking break. There’s no way you can trace any illness to that. Yes, there are real issues the health department should be worried about — proper storage, proper temps, general cleanliness. But I don’t think having a wipey is hurting people.
Has it gotten worse with the letter grading system?
I hate that thing. It’s just a way for the city to make more money. When I retire, I’m going to be one of those people who writes letters — and only about the health department.
Up next, Lo talks about eating live octopus.
Person you’d most like to cook for you:
There’s some stuff we used to have on the menu at Chanterelle, so I’d love for David to come back and cook that chicken with truffles. My god. And his sweetbreads.
Person you’d most like to cook for:
David Bouley’s never eaten here, and I think that’s a problem [laughs]. I’d be mortified if he came — I’d be scared to cook for him. But he was my first chef.
Who would you be most nervous about cooking for?
We’ve cooked for a lot of big people here. Ferran Adria, Martha Stewart used to come here a lot, I cooked for Julia Child once back in the day — I’m old; I’ve been around the block. I get really nervous cooking for other chefs. I’d definitely be nervous to cook for Bouley. But there’s not one person that I feel like, oh my god, I can’t cook.
Weirdest things you’ve eaten?
I’ve eaten so many weird things it’s not even funny. Trays of bugs. One that looked like a New York City water bug. I’ve had cod sperm on the menu here. It went over fine — it’s delicious. I ate a sheep’s eyeball in Mongolia. I really try to keep my mind open to all cultures. I think if any culture’s eating it, and it’s something that isn’t endangered or there isn’t some compelling reason why I shouldn’t eat it, I’m going to eat it. There are things I don’t like. I didn’t love fermented shark. But I love trying things. There are very few things that really challenge me. I ate a moving octopus in Korea — I enjoy a challenge.
I hear that live octopus can kill you.
Yeah, you gotta chew.
Dish you can eat forever:
So many. I’m such a pig. Great sushi. Bolognese bianco from L’Artusi. So many things.
Something you love about NY restaurant industry:
I love how diverse it is. I’m not sure it’s that diverse at the top, but in New York City, if you look at all the restaurants you can find here, you can find anything.
Thoughts on the review cycle?
From a media point of view, I understand that it’s important to get there first, but it’s not fair to the restaurant. For the people — and not just the chef or the owner, but for everyone that works for them — this is their livelihood. It takes an enormous amount of money and blood, sweat, and tears to open a restaurant. When I opened Mirezi, someone reviewed us on our dry run. I couldn’t turn them away, you know? I also think it’s unfair, if you’re going to be negative, to review a restaurant on one meal — that makes me angry.
Given your focus on personal food with influence from a lot of different cultures, what’s your take on the cronut or ramen burger or new wave of franken food?
It’s not new wave at all. It’s always been done. All food is fusion, even way back. All food is a mixture of something. If you look historically — what is Vietnamese cuisine? It has so much French influence in it. Banh mi? That has a baguette in it.
What about the mania surrounding it?
I haven’t had the cronut, and Dominique Ansel came into dinner the other day and didn’t bring me one. And there’s no way I’m standing in line, but I’ve heard it’s delicious.
Goals? What’s next?
I have to get through this knee replacement first. There was this big uproar when Nicoletta opened, and the Times was going around and asking, “How many restaurants are too many for one chef?” I loved Gabrielle Hamilton’s answer. Gabrielle said, “One.” I was like, yeah, yeah! I’ve got a lot of things going on right now. Travel, and I just joined the Nestle Culinary Council. That’s interesting — you want to change the way people eat, you have to go to the big corporations.
Anything in your story that we’re missing?
I think the story is constantly getting told of me as the female chef — what’s the story of me as a chef?